Two bills that will benefit local military veterans were passed by the General Assembly and officially signed by Governor Gina Raimondo this legislative session – one to revive a federal program that aims to funnel veterans into schools as teachers and another to lessen the burden for veterans to gain access to property tax abatements.
Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson of Warwick, who is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, introduced both bills. Co-sponsors on the bills included Rep. Patricia Serpa, Rep. Evan Shanley and Rep. Joseph Solomon Jr. (all representing Warwick), Rep. Robert Lancia of Cranston, Rep. James McLaughlin (Cumberland, Central Falls), Rep. Carlos Tobon (Pawtucket) and Rep. Robert Nardolillo (Coventry).
The first bill, introduced in January, seeks to make it easier for veterans to earn certifications to become teachers following their service in the military by working in conjunction with the Troops to Teachers program, a federal program that since 1993 has helped over 20,000 veterans become teachers in its participating states.
“Veterans represent a large segment of the population whose skills, experience and dedication should be utilized to educate our youth,” said Vella-Wilkinson in a release. “If we don’t take advantage of all that veterans have to offer, then we’re just wasting a tremendous national resource. This is a program that can reduce veteran unemployment, improve education, and provide much needed diversity among the faculties in today’s classrooms.”
According to Meg Geoghegan, communications officer for the Rhode Island Department of Education, the department had once been in contact with federal representation from the Troops to Teachers program around 2011, but those talks had gone silent until Vella-Wilkinson brought up the issue again. Geoghegan said that RIDE will be more than happy to spark up the dialogue with the federal government once more.
Ward 3 City Councilman Timothy Howe, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a teacher of mathematics in Pawtucket, praised Vella-Wilkinson for helping bring the program to Rhode Island and said that military members have the potential to be superb educators.
“We [veterans] have experience in training and guidance and classroom management and also have the experience of being a leader and going out there and understanding that there are goals to meet,” Howe said.
In response to hearing some criticism of the program that veterans come from an environment that is too homogenized societally and procedurally, he strongly disagreed.
“I worked in a very diverse population in my 10 years in the Army,” he said. “I trained with guys from the biggest urban cities and guys who never left the woods of Missouri…every sandbox and populated city in this country. Teaching a diverse population is not new to the military.”
Howe said that the next step was to sit down with elected officials, including Vella-Wilkinson, and RIDE officials to determine best practices for implementing the program in the state.
Property tax exemptions
While property tax exemptions have been available to veterans for a long time in the Ocean State, one specification to receive the exemption had created a bar too high for many to qualify for such benefits, which spurred Vella-Wilkinson to work on changing the existing language surrounding the abatements.
“Over the years I have been approached by numerous veterans who honorably served but were not considered a ‘veteran’ because they were excluded from certain benefits,” Vella-Wilkinson said in the release.
The new legislation signed by Raimondo struck a requirement that the military veteran needed a Campaign Ribbon to qualify, which meant the veteran needed 30 consecutive days or 60 nonconsecutive days deployed in a foreign theater of combat. This eliminated those who have served for many years but were never deployed in a combat situation.
Property tax exemptions vary from community to community. In Warwick, the City Charter allows up to a $4,000 abatement for military veterans. In Cranston it is $3,000. The exemptions also apply to real and personal property in some communities. In Warwick, the new changes enacted by the General Assembly do not need to be voted on by the City Council in order to be enacted, according to Howe.